On Chesil Beach is an impressive novella by Ian McEwan, first published in 2007. The story is set in the early 1960s in England and centres around newlyweds, Florence and Edward, spending their honeymoon night at a hotel on the Dorset coast.
Edward is in his early twenties, comes from a lower-middle-class background and has studied history at university. He is depicted as a sensitive and caring person, besotted with his new wife, Florence. However, he is also shown to be somewhat immature, particularly when it comes to matters of sexuality, intimacy and interpreting physical cues from other people. He also sometimes falls into uncontrollable rages.
Edward struggles to connect with Florence on a physical and emotional level, and his anxiety and frustration build as the evening progresses. He becomes increasingly frustrated with Florence’s reluctance to consummate the marriage and her apparent discomfort with physical intimacy.
Florence is around the same age as Edward, comes from an upper-middle-class background and is a talented violinist. She is reserved and introverted, with a tendency to internalize her emotions and thoughts. She is deeply in love with Edward, but struggles with feelings of anxiety and discomfort when it comes to physical intimacy.
Throughout the novella, Florence’s past experiences and anxieties are explored, shedding light on the reasons for her disgust of sexual activity. McEwan portrays Florence’s struggles with sensitivity and nuance, revealing the societal pressures and expectations placed upon women at that time – ultimately constituting a denial of agency and autonomy over their own bodies and desires.
The tension between the couple builds as they struggle to communicate clearly and connect with each other. Fears and anxieties are revealed, and their fledgling relationship is tested to breaking point. The novella culminates in a dramatic and tragic moment on the titular beach that changes the course of their lives forever.
On Chesil Beach is a poignant story of love in itself not being enough and the ways in which emotional baggage and societal expectations shape relationships. The lack of communication within the story is a feature of other works by McEwan, most notably Atonement. For such a short story it is a gripping read and showcases McEwan’s talent for describing the minutiae of the human condition that can lead into darkness.
The novella was adapted into a film a few years ago, if that’s more your cup of tea. Here’s the author talking about making the film: